Today’s offering tells the story of a birth taking place in the middle of one almighty thunderstorm. The date is 8 January 1935 and the location is a small house in a town in Mississippi.
Looka yonder! Looka yonder! Looka yonder! A big black cloud come! O comes to Tupelo. Comes to Tupelo
Yonder on the horizon. Stopped at the mighty river and. Sucked the damn thing dry. Tupelo-o-o, O Tupelo. In a valley hides a town called Tupelo.
Distant thunder rumble. Rumble hungry like the Beast. The Beast it cometh, cometh down. Wo wo wo-o-o. Tupelo bound. Tupelo-o-o. Yeah Tupelo. The Beast it cometh, Tupelo bound.
Why the hen won’t lay no egg. Can’t get that cock to crow. The nag is spooked and crazy. O God help Tupelo! O God help Tupelo!
Ya can say these streets are rivers. Ya can call these rivers streets. Ya can tell ya self ya dreaming buddy. But no sleep runs this deep. No! No sleep runs this deep. No sleep runs this deep. Women at their windows. Rain crashing on the pane. Writing in the frost. Tupelos’ shame. Tupelo’s shame. O God help Tupelo! O God help Tupelo!
O go to sleep lil children. The sandmans on his way. O go to sleep lil children. The sandmans on his way. But the lil children know. They listen to the beating of their blood.
They listen to the beating of their blood. The sandman’s mud! The sandman’s mud! And the black rain come down. Water water everywhere. Where no bird can fly no fish can swim. Where no bird can fly no fish can swim. No fish can swim. Until The King is born! Until The King is born! In Tupelo! Tupelo-o-o! Til The King is born in Tupelo!
In a clap-board shack with a roof of tin. Where the rain came down and leaked within. A young mother frozen on a concrete floor. With a bottle and a box and a cradle of straw. Tupelo-o-o! O Tupelo! With a bundle and a box and a cradle of straw.
Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals. And a child is born on his brothers heels. Come Sunday morn the first-born dead. In a shoe-box tied with a ribbon of red. Tupelo-o-o! Hey Tupelo! In a shoe-box buried with a ribbon of red.
O ma-ma rock you lil’ one slow. O ma-ma rock your baby. O ma-ma rock your lil’ one slow. O God help Tupelo! O God help Tupelo! Mama rock your lil’ one slow. The lil one will walk on Tupelo. Tupelo-o-o! Yeah Tupelo! And carry the burden of Tupelo. Tupelo-o-o! O Tupelo! Yeah! The King will walk on Tupelo! Tupelo-o-o! O Tupelo! He carried the burden outa Tupelo! Tupelo-o-o! Hey Tupelo! You will reap just what you sow.
I wasn’t sure whether to include this in this series given that the lyric is very much based on an actual event, namely that of the stillborn birth of Jesse Garon Presley, the elder twin, by 35 minutes, of the later to be crowned king of rock’n’roll. But there is a huge amount of imagination in the lyric given that the thunderstorm which engulfed Tupelo wasn’t until April 1936 when more than 200 people died after a deadly tornado tore through the city.
Nick Cave’s brilliance in forging these two events creates a tale of gothic horror, one which is made all the more spine-chilling thanks to the rollicking and memorable music, written by Mick Harvey and Barry Adamson, in which the sound effects of claps thunder and lightning bolts are fully justified.
This is from when Nick Cave was more Birthday Party than latter day Bad Seed. There is more than a nod to the blues with the opening line referencing Black Betty by Leadbelly (which itself would later be covered by The Bad Seeds) and the wider lyric being based on an old number by John Lee Hooker, who himself had written and recorded a song entitled Tupelo all about the deadly storm and the havoc it had reaped.